Revisiting the Classics: City Ballet Brings Restored Energy to Balanchine

With Tiler Peck as the season’s standout

Joaquin De Luz  and Tiler Peck  in 'Dances at  a Gathering.' (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

Joaquin De Luz
and Tiler Peck
in ‘Dances at
a Gathering.’ (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

To start off its new season, City Ballet put its best foot forward: its Balanchine foot. Much as the company tries—year in, year out—to come up with novelties, specialties, celebrities, gimmicks to attract what it must assume is a jaded audience, it’s inevitably Balanchine who makes the company what it is and gives the audience what it treasures. The first four performances last week brought us Jerome Robbins’ marvelous Dances at a Gathering, one pas de deux each from Peter Martins and Christopher Wheeldon—and Balanchine. And a Balanchine being danced with renewed vigor and attention; there have been times in recent years when certain of his ballets have looked not only under-rehearsed but slighted, as if they were elderly relatives brought down from the attic and hastily dusted off for visitors.

Concerto Barocco, one of Balanchine’s supreme masterpieces, has—like The Four Temperaments, like Liebeslieder Walzer, like Agon, like Theme and Variations—suffered spells of exhaustion or indifference. Not this time around. The corps of eight girls is crucial here: They’re as important to the ballet as the three principals. At one time, it was felt to be an honor to be one of them, and that’s the way they seemed to be dancing now—full strength, full attention, full out, inspired.

 As the lead woman in Barocco, Maria Kowroski has finally reached a glorious maturity as a performer. From the start, she has looked wonderful, and she was rushed into principal roles quickly—maybe too quickly—after joining the company in 1995. But for most of this time she’s lacked a certain kind of strength, of confidence. Kowroski will never be a powerhouse, but she has become something rarer—a true ballerina, combining delicacy with expansiveness, making the most of her gorgeous body and line, taking charge. Her Barocco was ravishing—the great lifts thrilling, reminiscent of Farrell’s, whom at times she eerily resembles; indeed, she’s at her best in Farrell roles. Tyler Angle’s masterful partnering helps give her the security she’s at times seemed to lack. The second Barocco woman was Sara Mearns, diving in with everything she has but, as all too often recently, more impetuous than elegant. This was true as well of her almost matronly “mauve” girl in Dances at a Gathering—exciting one moment, awkward the next.

Kowroski, again with Angle, also triumphed in the “Diamonds” section of Jewels, one of the greatest Farrell roles. Her interpretation has deepened over the years, and although she lacks ultimate power, she succeeds in being both wistful and majestic, and always beautiful. Another triumph in Jewels was that of Ashley Bouder in the Violette Verdy role in “Emeralds.” Bouder is a powerhouse—never for a moment has she lacked strength or confidence, any more than a tornado does. But she has worked hard to develop the softness and playfulness—and the inwardness—that “Emeralds” demands, and the results are highly impressive. The second ballerina, Mearns again, danced with her usual appealing intensity, but I’m not sure she knows what this haunting role is meant to be. She’s a natural, but she needs shaping.

 The “Rubies” section of Jewels now seems to be the property of Megan Fairchild, and she has certainly improved in it, but she dances it like a soubrette—cutenesses layered onto her strong technique. What she lacks is amplitude, full expressivity. Patricia McBride, the original Rubies girl, danced the classic Balanchine soubrettes—in Coppélia, in Harlequinade—but she was far more than a soubrette; although she was small, like Fairchild, she danced large, in dramatic roles, classical roles, romantic roles. She and Edward Villella, her partner in “Rubies,” had high-voltage energy, wicked humor; she was fun, not cute. Fairchild was at her attractive best as the “yellow” girl in Dances at a Gathering—free and easy and likable rather than grimly adorable. The star of this “Rubies” was Teresa Reichlen as the towering second-lead girl, her rock-like technique combined with her flamboyant showgirlisms gave the ballet the kick the whole thing should have.

Two of Balanchine’s oddest pieces were back on view. His Kammermusik No. 2, with its difficult, cranky Hindemith score, has never been a favorite. (Back in 1978, while saluting its brilliancies and excitements, Arlene Croce found it “fairly unappealing.”) Two ballerinas and their cavaliers, in almost twinned movement. A corps, or block, of eight men—unique in Balanchine, who once said, “Put 16 girls on a stage, and it’s everybody—the world. But put 16 boys, and it’s always nobody.” And that’s the idea—Kammermusik is impersonal, relentless, Germanic. It’s fascinating to watch Balanchine “solve” the music, but it’s more a lesson than a pleasure. It’s like watching pistons at work.

And then there was the unique and bizarre Union Jack, Balanchine’s tribute to Britain for the bicentenary of the American Revolution. (The ungrateful British disliked it intensely.) First, the seven “regiments” of marching Scots, all kilts and bagpipes, in constantly changing patterns—70 dancers in slow procession, except when they break out into charged solos and duets. Then the “Costermonger Pas de Deux,” a jokey, sequinney love letter to a very different British tradition. And finally, the Royal Navy, everybody romping up a storm, with hornpipes and jigs climaxed by “Rule Britannia” as a huge Union Jack unfurls upstage while everyone semaphores “God Save the Queen” and cannons roar. Standouts were Abi Stafford, for once lively, relaxed, enjoying herself, both as the leader of the “Green Montgomerie” regiment and as a bubbly sailor girl; Andrew Veyette (“Dress MacLeod” and raunchy Royal Navy lad; Peter Martins was the original); and Amar Ramasar as the Costermonger “Pearly King.” Ramasar is another vastly improved dancer. He was always talented, but in the last couple of years, he’s been taking his talent seriously.

The standout this season, though, is Tiler Peck, the company’s most spectacular talent and superb in every role. She’s today’s McBride, with a vast range, uncanny musicality and deep understanding of everything she does. She’s the best “Man I Love” in Who Cares? since McBride, the best “pink” girl in Dances at a Gathering since McBride, and exceptionally fine in Wheeldon’s After the Rain. And she keeps getting better and better. The audience has found her and is in love. Me too.

Revisiting the Classics: City Ballet Brings Restored Energy to Balanchine